Virtual Versus Augmented Realities

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It’s 2016 and, despite the lack of hoverboards, it very much still feels like the future is here. Technology continues to take leaps and bounds forward with little sign of stopping. Among this tech is virtual reality, and its sister, augmented reality. Both visionary mediums seek to heighten actual reality, but the two go about it quite differently.

Virtual reality, simply put, is a way of using technology to replace, not enhance, the actual physical space around you. This is usually accomplished by producing a three-dimensional environment via computer and displaying that information through a headset. Sometimes this is accompanied by sound, gloves, or other tools to use in your hands–and sometimes even treadmills to engage with more of your senses.

The history of virtual reality, at least as prescribed by the definition given above, dates back to 1968 when the first virtual reality device was created by Ivan Sutherland. It was dubbed the “Sword of Damocles,” and despite the innovation of it being the first head-mounted display, the fact that it was too heavy and hard to hang from the ceiling made it impractical on a commercial level.

Fast forward to today, and the technology and marketability of a virtual reality experience has sky-rocketed exponentially. Thanks in no small part to the Oculus Rift, a VR headset that hit the market earlier this year, virtual reality has never seemed more real. The Oculus Rift isn’t complicatedly build, making it cheap to produce. Rendered from simple electronic components, the Rift’s motion tracker and high refresh rate give it the mass appeal signaling that virtual reality may have finally arrived.

VR technology has many applications, the most obvious being entertainment. Sony and Microsoft’s newest systems will support virtual reality devices for their games. It’s also being used for education purposes; you can employ virtual reality to tour art museums and even in the field of healthcare.

On the other side of the coin is augmented reality, which shares a few similarities to virtual reality. Augmented reality, like virtual reality, uses computers to generate its data. And like VR, it can be used via a helmet or goggles. But what makes augmented reality different is that it is used in tandem with the real world, as opposed to virtual reality. Instead of using your senses (namely vision) to perceive a new world, AR works with what you already see to improve upon it.

The history of augmented reality runs hand in hand with the history of virtual reality for most of its life. Both are based on the same tech. The big branching off point can be traced by the relatively recent Google Glass, the first mass marketed AR device. Google Glass uses a tiny projector to beam information straight onto your retina, which allows you to access information while still seeing the real world.

An advantage augmented reality has over its counterpart is that you don’t necessarily need a headset to use it. A modern phone can augment reality just as much as a fancy headset, though it will probably require you to take out your phone to use it. Apps like Google Translate, Pokemon Go, and even Yelp, are using augmented reality to create new ways for people to interact with their environments.

Virtual and augmented reality are really just two sides of the same coin. Both are designed to give you experiences you couldn’t normally have. Virtual reality can take you to different worlds, and augmented reality can help you explore this one. Whether you prefer one or the other, both are opening up new worlds of possibilities.